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Is Air Pollution Driving Rich Chinese To Emigrate?

China risks losing a growing number of so-called "environmental migrants."

In Beijing
In Beijing
Ma Liang

BEIJING — Since the beginning of winter, many Chinese cities, including the capital, have repeatedly been shrouded in air pollution. But the horrendous air quality not only depresses people: It is literally driving more and more of them to pack up and leave China's booming coastal cities, and even to consider emigration.

The latest Hurun Report of the richest Chinese showed that fleeing from environmental pollution is now one of the three top reasons cited by China's wealthy for leaving the country for good. Though studies on a direct relationship between environmental pollution and international migration are so far limited, two Singapore university professors' findings offer a good glimpse into the issue. Based on research from 153 large cities, and from the "migration" search index of Baidu — China's largest search engine — it is clear that the more serious the air pollution, the higher the positive correlation with online searches using keywords related to emigration.

Using the daily Air Quality Index (AQI) published by the 153 cities, the researchers found out that when air quality worsens, search keywords like "mask," "haze" and "PM 2.5" (particulate matter) appear — going up by 10.3 to 12.7%, 19.5 to 27.1% and 23.3 to 32.1% respectively. Meanwhile, every time a city's AQI increases by 100 points, its residents' search index on topics around emigrating goes up by 2.3-4.7% the next day.

The effect of air pollution on emigration-linked searches thus seems to be much lower than on keywords like "mask" or "haze." But this is understandable, since only the richest Chinese people can possibly regard leaving the country as one of their options, while nearly everybody can afford to buy a mask.

Meanwhile, air pollution also seems to affect Chinese major cities' dwellers differently: Beijingers exhibit the strongest desire to flee air pollution, while people in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen appear less distressed. One possible reason is that pollution in Beijing is comparatively much worse than in the other three mega-cities.

Although settling down in a foreign country is a long-term decision, the far-reaching impact expressed by this newfound interest in emigration is not to be ignored. Both brain drain and capital flight are to the exporting country's disadvantage. In general, career perspectives and income discrepancy are the major reasons driving people to leave. Now in China, we are beginning to learn the weight on the future of these new "environmental migrants."

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Influencer Union? The Next Labor Rights Battle May Be For Social Media Creators

With the end of the Hollywood writers and actors strikes, the creator economy is the next frontier for organized labor.

​photograph of a smartphone on a selfie stick

Smartphone on a selfie stick

Steve Gale/Unsplash
David Craig and Stuart Cunningham

Hollywood writers and actors recently proved that they could go toe-to-toe with powerful media conglomerates. After going on strike in the summer of 2023, they secured better pay, more transparency from streaming services and safeguards from having their work exploited or replaced by artificial intelligence.

But the future of entertainment extends well beyond Hollywood. Social media creators – otherwise known as influencers, YouTubers, TikTokers, vloggers and live streamers – entertain and inform a vast portion of the planet.

✉️ You can receive our Bon Vivant selection of fresh reads on international culture, food & travel directly in your inbox. Subscribe here.

For the past decade, we’ve mapped the contours and dimensions of the global social media entertainment industry. Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, these creators struggle to be seen as entertainers worthy of basic labor protections.

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